The only illegal business I ever witnessed at Minneapolis's Hard Times Cafe was the "free phone" across the street--a pay phone that gave free calls to anywhere in America for a few weeks during the early Nineties. "Don't abuse it," said a friend, a Hard Times regular. "And don't tell anyone about it." I wonder how many people had passed along that little dictum.
Today the late-night crowd at the Hard Times looks much as it always has: African men arguing in their native tongues; green-haired punks slapping the chess timer; students losing themselves in paperbacks. The café is still a hub of West Bank academia, bohemia, and Somalia--complete with loud music and an anarchist service ethic ("Stupid questions: $5.00" reads the chalkboard menu). And the perennial friction between the vegetarian greasy spoon and city hall still comes down to a battle between those who would never set foot in such a place and those who would.
Perhaps one outcome of this tussle was last month's primary-election ousting of Minneapolis City Council member Joan Campbell, whose ward includes the Hard Times, and who encouraged the council to revoke the café's license in June of 2000. Minneapolis police had raided the business earlier that year and charged an employee with dealing marijuana. Yet community members rallied to the café's defense, and many of the politicians who sided with Campbell are now out of the picture: Brian Herron has resigned, and Kathy Thurber and Doré Mead didn't run for re-election.
Until recently, the City showed no sign of abandoning its efforts to shut the joint down. But on September 20, a district court judge ruled in favor of Hard Times lawyers, ordering the city to turn over documents relating to its licensing decision (which the café claims violated its rights by considering "outside evidence" such as 911 calls). Soon after, Timothy Skarda, a city attorney, told the Minnesota Daily that "the political framework has changed...the time would be right to have a settlement discussion."
Last Friday the city council voted unanimously to reverse the café's death sentence, settling with the Hard Times and renewing its licenses. Still, the unpaid costs of going to court have run into the thousands of dollars. So friends of the café have organized two benefit concerts this week at the 7th Street Entry, and an accompanying CD of live local music that includes tracks by the Fog, Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears, the Mighty Mofos, Grant Hart, Low, and 18 other acts. The entirety of Hard Times All Around was recorded on DAT tape by Dan Witt, a patron at the café since the free-phone days. Setting up mics in local clubs, Witt has been independently amassing live recordings of local and national acts for years.
"I'm just a fan of local music, and music in general," he says over the phone from his home in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. "I'll listen to tapes four or five times after I record them."
The result of Witt's work--executed with the bands' permission and support--is an exemplary document of live chaos, as skinned-knee raw and packed-refrigerator hodgepodge as you might expect. Two expired bands, Lily Liver and the Odd, contribute tracks from the old days. Others sound as if they are in the act of expiring onstage. Mark Mallman kills his titular "Stupid Bum" with vitriol; Caveman literally kills his banjo on "Alcohol Jesus and Death"; Dillinger Four kill their voices on "Let Them Eat Thomas Paine."
For now, the Hard Times Cafe seems to have beaten back its own expiration date; we may yet feast on the body of Jackie Cherryhomes.
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